Rumblings about increased government involvement in university governance have been around for some time, but in the past year, the knowledge that legislation is the pipeline has further heightened fears. The full bill was published last week, and it’s now clear that the Department of Higher Education is seeking to radically change the relationship between colleges and the Higher Education Authority.
Trinity has been among the loudest voices of opposition – College prizes its long-standing governance structure, comprising Board, the Fellows and the Scholars. Critics within College have argued that the spirit of collegiality – electing decision makers, rather than appointing them, and making decisions based on consensus – will be eroded under the changes.
Trinity’s pitch for an exemption came, in part, from concerns that the problems the bill sought to address were evident in other universities – but not College. The bill is being sold by Higher Education Minister Simon Harris as enhanced protection for government investment into colleges, and these days, less than half of Trinity’s income comes from the exchequer. All three candidates in the Provost election voiced their opposition to an increased state presence in College decision making. Now, Trinity has been granted a special allowance, but not full immunity – in addition to the 17 members outlined in the bill, Board will be able to appoint five Fellows, bringing the total membership to 22. Crucially, this enables Board to retain an internal majority.
However, securing an exemption for Trinity at all still represents a win for Provost Linda Doyle, who was landed with the task of navigating an unprecedented shake-up of the composition of Board immediately when she took office in August. Board is to hold a rare extraordinary meeting next week with the aim of allowing Doyle to hear out reactions to the bill and decide what to do next.
Speaking to The University Times, Cliona O’Farrelly, the chair of the Fellows, said she welcomed the government’s recognition in the bill of Trinity’s unique collegiate governance structure.
O’Farrelly is a former Board member and served on the Board Review Working Group, which made recommendations for reshaping Board based on internal assessments, including separating the role of Provost and chair of the Board. “Trinity was working on it all the time”, O’Farrelly said. “[College] came up with its own solutions before it was told what to do by the Department.”
Critics of the bill in College have argued that the sweeping reforms, which will be applied to every university in the country, amount to solving a problem which, in Trinity, doesn’t actually exist. While the size of Board – 27 members – is sometimes accused of being an impediment to getting things done, equivalent boards in other universities have as many as 40 members, leading to accusations of stagnation and managerialism.
One Board member, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the confidential nature of Board discussions, said: “We’re going to make ourselves hostages to the government … the government has done nothing to actually enhance the service that we provide.”
“There’s a sense of: ‘Oh, God, we better try and satisfy the Fellows”, the Board member said. But the strength of Board, they added, also comes from representation of “professional staff, the students’ union, the Graduate Students’ Union”.
The 17-person board structure includes two student representatives. College Board currently has four. Both student unions in Trinity have vowed to secure the retention of all four.
In an email statement to this newspaper, John Walsh, the chair of Trinity’s branch of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), concurred with this, saying: “The insistence on cutting student representation by half in the name of consistency is indefensible and bizarre.”
“The Bill follows a rigidly corporate and commercial philosophy to create small governing bodies, dominated by university leaders, ministerial and external nominees”, Walsh said, adding that it amounted to “a direct attack on the autonomy of the universities and clearly regards academic staff representation as at best a nuisance on academic governing bodies”.
Prof Eunan O’Halpin, who was a Board member for two terms, has previously criticised the proposal to change College’s governance structure. However, speaking to this newspaper, he conceded that the bill published on Friday was “miles better, I think, than what was being pushed originally”.
“The Board has evolved over the years”, O’Halpin said. “It’s not as though it was always a place where at least 50 per cent were women – it’s not as though it’s always been equality central or staff central. Board has developed a more, if you like, democratic culture.”
O’Halpin added that external members did have advantages: they bring niche expertise such as corporate governance or legal knowledge that elected members may not have. And, he said, they are less concerned with local squabbles: “Unless they’re mad, they’re not going to get into the details of things, [they’re] not going to get involved in internal fights and things – that’s not really their role.”
But Walsh argued that external members may be more concerned with the government’s priorities for universities than the universities’ own goals: “There is no indication that more ministerial nominees will lead to greater diversity – in the past ministerial or external nominees have had a strong bias toward business and corporate appointments.”
Sean Barrett, a former pro-Chancellor of the College and a Senator until 2016, has also been vocal about the problems with the potential reforms. He told The University Times in an email: “TCD is Ireland’s highest ranked university. It attracts the highest ranked students and produces graduates in high demand. Its academic staff publish in international journals … It is hard to see what problem the government thinks it is addressing.”
“The charge-sheet against TCD has never been made explicit”, Barrett said. “We failed to extract from the government what precisely is TCD supposed to be guilty of.”